Sunday, February 19, 2006

Monoawase: Food, Sex and the Magic of Comparison

Sex is no different from any other sensual pleasure--such as eating—the more we pay attention, the greater the reward. That may be why first times are so powerful; newness always captures our senses. But, being a person who believes depth and sustained focus provides greater rewards than broad, but superficial interaction (or in layman’s terms, fucking one person well beats out fucking many without true connection and intimacy), you can’t rely on newness alone. That’s where an ancient Japanese game called monoawase can help.

I just finished a memoir entitled Untangling my Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto which was very nostalgic for me, as I too was in Kyoto around the same time as the author. I’m not sure if the book would work such magic with a reader who’d never been to Japan. In this case a taste is worth a thousand words. For me however, Victoria Abbott Riccardi’s description of her first okonomiyaki (a cabbage pancake with a rich, smoky sauce—much better than it sounds) brought my own initiation rushing back. Riccardi went to Japan to study tea kaiseki, the spare but artistic cuisine that accompanies the tea ceremony (a great example of how attention can transform something mundane and simple into something exquisite), and the memoir is packed full of fascinating tea lore and history. She really knows her stuff. I did sense, however, that she was holding back both in writing the memoir and while she was in Kyoto twenty years ago. Part of it was certainly due to the fact that she had a serious boyfriend waiting in the States. I understand the sentiment, because during my second stay, I had a husband waiting in California, and it really does mean your heart is not as open to the foreign experience (of course, I was, in general, a much happier person the second time around because of my marriage). But there was something else, too. Riccardi is always describing how she labors for hours making elaborate and magical feasts, but she never chooses to eat them once they are done, even when she has the opportunity. Perhaps it is that in-grained American/Puritan fear of sensual pleasure?

I also wish there’d been more sex, but I feel that way about almost everything.

But on to monoawase and it’s relation to sex and food. Riccardi mentions this Japanese pastime of comparing like things in a ritualistic setting. Courtiers of a thousand years ago would compare incense or sake or tea or poetry, trying to guess the origin from the sensual qualities of the object. The tradition continues today among the artistic aristocracy. Even rice was the focus of monoawase, hard for Americans to believe perhaps, but if you go to Japan, you will come to realize that rice has a terroir just like wine and there are indeed subtle differences in flavor (the best I’ve ever had was in a minshuku, or family run inn, in Tsumago, a village on the old interior post road from Osaka to Edo). As I read Riccardi’s description, I realized how much I am drawn to American-style monoawase, or taste-tests as my kids like to call them. We’ve done monoawase with chocolate chip cookies, white chocolate, dark chocolate, German Christmas stollen, coffee, chocolate croissants and cinnamon twists from five different Berkeley bakeries, and of course wine.

Why can’t it work for sex, too? Of course, one obvious conclusion is that one would compare different lovers, and I’m sure many people do. But I’m more interested in the subtleties of lovemaking between monogamous partners, and I think it works there, too. The differences in scent, taste and response would be more subtle, but no less fascinating—plus there is the ego boost of proving one’s high connoisseurship of one’s lover, no? Is the temperature of his skin different tonight? Is his hard-on harder or fuller? Are her nipples more sensitive (sensitivity does fluctuate throughout the month)? Does she come faster if she shaves down there? How about the respective heat of different positions or fantasies (I’ve heard, and I believe, that an active fantasy life is key to a satisfying monogamous relationship)?

I think the Japanese aristocracy was on to something.

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